Meditation is practiced by millions of people around the world every day. Perhaps, because it spans so many cultures and generations, it is misunderstood by many people.
There are books upon books, and programs that teach how to meditate; each one being a little bit different than the next. These books are usually found in the self-help section of the book store, specifically in the area of spirituality, which puts some people automatically at odds with the entire concept.
The practice of meditation has been around for thousands of years, and has been perfected by the Tibetan Buddhist monks. For the Buddhists and many others, meditation is part of their religious practice.
Although the monks are very private about their religious practice, through them we have learned a lot about the human mind. Due to their highly devout, lifelong commitment to perfecting meditation, they have been able to demonstrate the power that the mind has over the body (so much more than being able to walk on red hot embers without burning their feet).
The Buddhist monks have demonstrated that they can control their body temperature even when exposed to life-threatening cold temperatures and conditions. They have also demonstrated that they can control their heart rate and breathing without suffering any ill effects. The monks have even demonstrated that they can levitate above the ground!
The primary goal of meditating is to quiet the mind. This means being able to tune out distractions, and to eliminate the chatter that goes on inside one’s mind. While Buddhists, who are atheists, believe that quieting the mind will allow one to connect with their inner being, and the ultimate source of love, Christians believe that quieting the mind will allow them to hear the voice of God.
Aside from religious beliefs, though, meditation has a very real place in both physical and mental health. Modern science has proved through brain imaging, that an individual’s brain activity changes when they meditate. Scientists use a variety of methods for viewing brain activity including functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), computed tomography (CT), positron emission tomography (PET), magnetoencephalography (MEG), electroencephalography (EEG), and near infrared spectroscopy (NIRS).
Of the many forms of meditation, they can be classified into these five categories: nondirective or mindfulness attention meditation, compassion or heart centered meditation, reflective meditation, creative meditation, and concentrative meditation.
Daily practice of meditation has been linked to feelings of calm and relaxation, lessened depression, increased energy, weight loss, desired weight gain, improved memory and cognitive function, decreased anxiety and fear and increased positive emotions, improved sleep, faster healing time, improved compassion and empathy for others, and improved focus and concentration.
Scientists have been studying brainwaves that occur at specific frequencies, and how they affect different parts of the brain. The five most common brainwaves studied are alpha, beta, theta, gamma, and delta waves.
What they are discovering is that not only are certain parts of the brain affected during meditation, but regular meditation causes new neuropathways to develop, making some changes permanent. This is the concept of neuroplasticity, where the brain is constantly changing in response to learning new things, and other influences outside of the brain.
Social situations, and our perception to them can either cause positive changes in the brain or negative changes. Just that fact alone has innumerable possibilities for improving one’s mental and physical health.
Since stress alone has been determined to cause more disease than all the other risk factors combined, managing your stress level is more important than ever. Besides removing yourself from stressful situations, which is not always possible, learning how to change your response to stress is critically important.
This is where meditation can help you to sort out thoughts and emotions, and thereby enable you to feel less stressed.
In order for meditation to be effective, you must be in a quiet place where you are alone and able to sit comfortably. Do not lie down because you will more than likely go to sleep instead of meditate. Make sure that you are in a safe place where you can close your eyes and not worry about anything else. You definitely don’t want to be driving a vehicle or operating machinery.
It is not necessary to be sitting on the ground with your legs crossed, but you may find it helpful to at least have your feet on the ground. The most important thing is for you to be comfortable so you are not focusing on how uncomfortable you are.
Next, it is important to have one thing in mind that you want to focus on. It could be wanting to feel less anxious, wanting to be more compassionate to others, wanting to be less affected by a particular stressful situation, etc.
Once you have decided what you want to work on, close your eyes, and allow your body to relax. Sitting in a neutral position where your spine is straight and your head balances on top of your neck is the best position to encourage relaxation without falling asleep since you still have to hold yourself up. Allow your shoulders to drop, and your hands to rest on your lap.
Alleviate strain on your neck by keeping your chin up, but relax your jaw. Maintain your posture through your back while allowing your stomach muscles to relax. As you take a breath in, allow your diaphragm to expand along with your lungs.
With each breath, take more air into your lungs until you feel your lungs fully expand; you may experience a need to yawn, or a sudden feeling of relief. Both are good, and indicate that you have been holding your breath or breathing shallowly.
It is at this point that you are ready to focus on that one thing that you want to improve. Thinking about the 5 basic categories of meditation, let’s examine how you would use reflective meditation to reduce stress brought on by a busy schedule.
Let’s say that you are feeling stressed from being so busy that you are constantly being pulled in different directions. There never seems to be enough time to slow down and enjoy life. Meals are eaten on the run, and you stay up late trying to get caught up. Your sleep is not good because you are exhausted when you do finally make it to bed, but you can’t shut your mind off to fall asleep.
You may not feel like you have the time to sit and meditate, because you always feel like you behind; but the truth is, if you were more focused on the events of the day you would have more time to invest in yourself. Even ten minutes of self-care in the form of meditation would bring great benefit to your wellbeing and your health.
In this example, you may get the most benefit from meditating in the evening. Taking 10-15 minutes to sit quietly, and allowing deep breathing to slow your mind and relax your body will put you in a position to release yourself from any feelings of disappointment from the day.
You can devote some time to reviewing the day’s events to see if something could be changed to make the day smoother, but ultimately you need to let yourself know that the past is past, and not dwell on it. Spend some time thinking about tomorrow’s schedule. Go through the details of the day in a calm frame of mind.
It is here that you can be objective about things and find solutions to problems that may arise. Train yourself to view events in a positive frame of mind. When feelings of worry and angst creep in, take a deep breath in, tell yourself that worry is not useful and release the feeling as you breath out. Keep doing this until you can envision the situation without worry or angst.
Don’t get discouraged if you get stuck and can’t get past imagining the situation without feeling stressed. You can always move on to the next part of your day. Learning to release anxiety in meditation takes practice and time.
Allow for reflection on all areas such as ways to be more efficient, like getting help or putting something off for another day. Mealtime should be viewed as a respite and worthy of investing time into. Try to work in time just for sitting down to eat. Don’t neglect this simple but powerful break in your day; enjoy it with friends or family.
Throughout your day, when feeling stressed, take just two minutes to close your eyes and breathe deeply and purposefully, releasing the tension in your body and calming your mind. Meditation is a way to train your mind to worry less and will, over time, allow you to face situations calmly and with reason. Your sleep will improve and so will your quality of life. I encourage you to give it a try.
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